Former Trinidad City Councilman Carlos Lopez is campaigning to represent Colorado State Senate District No. 35, a seat currently occupied by Senator Larry Crowder of Alamosa.
Lopez, running as a Democrat, is opposed by another political newcomer, Republican Cleave Simpson, who like Crowder, also resides in the San Luis Valley.
Senate District 35 is the largest district in terms of geographical area in the state and encompasses southern and southeastern Colorado.
Lopez believes rural and southern Colorado is too often ignored by the legislature. His motto is “Preserving our way of life while preparing for the future,” and he touts the economic growth of Trinidad and believes his term on city council was instrumental in that growth.
Lopez has also been a member of the executive board of the Colorado Municipal League and is a current board member of the Arkansas River Power Authority and the Human Services Advisor Board with Trinidad State Junior College. He is also a founder and chair of the Youth Club of Trinidad, Inc.
The following is an interview with Lopez as he ramps up his campaign. More can be found out about him and his campaign at carloslopezforcolorado.com.
The Chronicle-News: Why run?
Carlos Lopez: I feel that southern Colorado has been neglected for way too long in the Capitol. I feel that we need a strong voice to get across issues and concerns on legislative, tangible matters that will help us have better strength in the state’s recognition of how we are going to be recognized. A lot of people don’t even know we are around down here, they just think that the state line ends at Colorado Springs, or Pueblo. I feel that we down here deserve professional people that will voice our concerns down here in a manner that is strong, firm and recognizable.
TCN: What makes you think you are ready?
Lopez: I’ve been positioning myself over the past four years after being on city council, by networking with other community leaders and also positioning myself on the Colorado Municipal League’s executive board where we work in conjunction with our lobbyists that perform in conjunction with other lobbyists and state legislatures to either support, oppose, or stay neutral on specific legislative topics. I’ve also gained the knowledge of how legislation actually goes through. From committees into the house, then from there into other committees and then into the senate before it end up on the governor’s desk for signature. But what I’ve really been saddened by is that a lot of our legislation is actually drafted by lobbyists — then it’s sponsored by legislators. I would prefer if the legislation was drafted by the people and brought forth by the legislators, or if legislators themselves drafted the legislation itself with support from the local community saying ‘this is what we need to help us down here. As opposed to some interest group who is drafting something that may have ulterior reasons for why they are trying to get it passed through into state law.
TCN: Obviously, it’s beneficial for a place like Trinidad to have a representative in the state legislature. How does being from Trinidad matter to your campaign?
Lopez: I can’t deny that I am from here. Trinidad has definitely groomed me into the person that I am. Trinidad used to be a pretty rough town when I was growing up here and it has gotten a lot better. I think growing up here really taught you how to be respectful of others, so that way you didn’t say things that were just rude, or later misinterpreted. It taught you a little bit of tact. That respect went a long way with a lot of the older people whether you were a farmer, a rancher, were in a professional capacity, or you were just some guy on the street that used to roll hard, you always learned respect. I think that has always been one of the things about people whether you are a transient, or in an official capacity you always still give them respect. ‘Yes ma’am, yes sir,’ because you don’t know what is going on in their life. It’s better off to be respectful of everybody.
TCN: It’s different being a rural legislature. Does the capitol respect us? Is that something that even needs to be established?
Lopez: I think it’s getting better, but that is something that can get better still. I feel that when we are being recognized as a viable economic entity to the state, that is when we will really be considered a legislative powerhouse, even an agricultural powerhouse, or for whatever we want to be recognized as. I think that is where southern Colorado really needs to determine what we want to be. Do we want to always be an agricultural community? That’s O.K. Do we want to be something more, or different? Then lets sit down and figure out exactly what we want to be. Or do we want to be a blend of multiple facets of economic driven economy. We can be an education center for new blue-collar jobs, vocational driven positions that are with new innovative technology. Getting our community and vocational schools to where they can be the tip of the spear for new types of blue-collar, innovative (and) educational benefits for our people, so we can have more people going into the trade fields. Right now we are really lacking right there, throughout the country, not just here. I know when I try to find a plumber, or electrician they are tied up with other big jobs, because all the growth has stayed in Denver and it’s harder to find down here and the ones that are good and talented down here, everyone knows it, so they are tied up too.
TCN: How are you doing this, running a campaign, do you have any help?
Lopez: It’s pretty new to me, I’m not going to lie. It’s very much a grassroots campaign. I am doing a lot on social media to gain attention. I have done a lot of research on my own to find out who I need to get in order to get online donations through Act Blue. They are an entity that does a lot of donation capturing for people and then they give you back the majority of the money. They keep a small portion. Rather than me going around and asking people to open their checkbooks and I do not carry around one of those Squares apparatuses on my phone. It’s another way for me to go out and learn about this new technology of going out and getting donations. It is really the way of the future. It’s different than me going out to a large group and passing the hat. With all these platforms I can go to any area around the state and the country really and find people that are liking the things that I am putting out there and saying ‘I like this individual and would like to contribute to helping him help his local community, or region.
TCN: How do you feel about your race right now?
Lopez: I’m optimistic, definitely. I know that I have an uphill battle. The majority of the public that votes here generally votes Republican. I am registered as a Democrat. I think regardless of the ‘R’ and the ‘D’ behind people’s names in small local politics you have to vote for the person that is going to perform best for you and your neighbors. I believe that because of my passion that I will be able to invigorate more people than be divisive for groups. I want to work for everybody and I’m not going to agree with everybody on certain matters, but with that in my back pocket along with the time I now have to go out and actually meet with people I am finding that a lot of people I am meeting with that are Republican are now saying ‘Hey, I like you and I appreciate you coming all the way out here to speak with me, you’ve got my vote.’ The more I can have conversations like that, I feel it gives me more confidence that I am not just running a futile race. I don’t think that anyone should just be given a race — they need to earn it. Competition breeds more competition and brings new ideas and hopefully better legislation.
TCN: How do you view Senator Larry Crowder and his term?
Lopez: Senator Crowder has been considered a fairly moderate Republican. That has been very good for the district, because there were some things he went against his party, like state health care, then there are other things he doesn’t. He did try to bring up the idea of bringing down a train transportation system that would go from the north end of the state to the south end of the state. I think that is a great idea. The only thing I varied with him on would be the type of train it was going to be. He wanted to use the typical diesel operated train that runs on the current rails in existence, where I thought that was antiquated technology… If you are going to throw money at something like that why don’t you just save it until you want to put in a bullet train where it does make it a more feasible way to commute? So, I think the idea was good; it was just the logistics of getting it done where we had disagreements on.
TCN: Have you heard much about your
Lopez: I have heard a little. Right now I know that he is very big on water conservation. He is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District and he also manages his family’s farm... He is very knowledgeable on these matters and I have been learning them. So, that’s the only thing I can say he is concerned about, is water. And water is a vital concern for everybody that lives in our part of the state. It’s the lifeblood for how we provide a lot of our economy because of either ranching, or farming, but it can’t be your only thing. That’s one thing I learned on city council. You have people that come on with pet projects, or agendas, but you have to deal with everything else that comes beside it. I feel my time on council has prepared me for dealing with everything. You have to deal with budgets too. And it’s not like you have to deal with one budget for one entity, you deal with it for everything. Here on city council we have been very successful in the past four years budgeting a conservative, balanced budget that has actually been gaining surplus monies because of our fiscal conservativeness. As a result of that we are having a nice growth spurt for Trinidad that we haven’t seen in probably about 20 years.
TCN: We’ve talked a lot about Trinidad, but this is the largest legislative district in the state, how does your message change when you go to these other cities and counties?
Lopez: Basically what I tell people is ‘How do we maintain your family traditions and livelihoods while preparing for the next generation and how they are going to come in?’ My motto is ‘Preserving our way of life while preparing for the future.’ There are going to be a lot of family farms where their kids go away to school and they get experience in another community and they might not want to come home. How do we get them to come back home and take care of family property, businesses and things like that? Or maybe just come back home where they can work remotely through a new type of job that they like to do back at home. The San Luis Valley has some beautiful locales, so does the eastern plains. Just depends whether you are a cowboy poet, or if you are someone that likes being close to Ponchas Springs Pass and you want to go over to Monarch and go skiing out there, but you still want to live in the valley because it’s breathtaking out there. It’s gorgeous. The sunsets and the sunrises, which I’ve been seeing lately being on the road they’re quite spectacular and the same out east. It’s got its own mystic landscape. So how do we get them to come back home to appreciate these beautiful vistas that we have? I think it is through innovative means, especially having better high-speed broadband. These are things that will have to be brought forward. We’re going to have to work on electrical grids and new capacity to make sure we can produce our own electricity through innovative technology. And if we do that how do we transmit it? There are a lot of technical things that have to go in. Easements? These are things that I have been learning now that I am on the ARPA (Arkansas River Power Authority) board. I actually toured the Lamar Power Plant recently just to see what exactly happened with that debacle. How do we avoid doing it again? I know as humans we are going to make mistakes, but how do we learn from them and not repeat them? That’s the key thing so we don’t have other economic downturns as a result of a $170 million dollar paper weight that is now in Lamar. The City of Trinidad being part of that co-op is a part of that bill.
TCN: What’s it been like out on the road?
Lopez: I like it. It gives me a lot of time to think. Compared to what I have been doing where I’m either in an office or doing the normal job I have running Lopez Enterprises, it’s very peaceful and having the time to contemplate all these issues and use my telephone to network with other people. And honestly, listening to the radio. Talk radio shows have been very influential because it gives you another perspective of what is going on in another part of the region, or the country. I never really had time to sit and listen to other people’s plight, or successes and that has been rewarding.
TCN: Have any of your ideas changed as you get out into these other counties, other places?
Lopez: Definitely. So, what I have been learning a lot about in the San Luis Valley is about the closed water basin project, or closed basin project. There is a lot of issues out there with their water, because of salvageable water where it is supposed to be considered non-usable water but is going on to feed other natural habitats. So we have Blanca Park, or the Great Sand Dunes and other natural wildlife areas surrounding them and that water is supposed to go to them to keep a good ecosystem and things like that. But a lot of the times the water that is being pumped out there is not always going to those areas, it’s being used by other farmers, which is not its intended original usage. So, I’m still learning about this. It is a very complex matter. The more people communicate with me the better I can get a grasp of what is going on, but right now all I can tell you is that water is — what’s the adage? ‘Whiskey’s for drinking and water is for fighting.’ It’s a very serious topic and right now from the meetings I have been attending, people don’t really want to budge and until we have some type of concessions from everybody they are in a pickle. If they can’t regulate their aquifer system, which is depleting more and more every year, in 2030 the state engineer, if their depletion continues, is going to come down and shut down those water wells. Whether you have a senior water right, a surface water right, or ground water right, whatever it may be they are going to be in a pickle. So they are going to have to come together and find a way to maintain without just raising rates to try to curtail usage of water, because when you do that you force someone that is a small farmer out of the business. Then those people consider selling their water rights to the renewable water resource entity, which is really contentious right now, which I don’t support. But when you are a farmer with a family, you can’t farm your land because it costs too much for water that you have rights to, people start to think about what their options are and that’s unfortunate.
TCN: What has been the response to your running, specifically?
Lopez: So far it hasn’t been too bad. There was a piece that (The Chronicle-News) published from the High Country News about the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District and I read that and I met several people that were in the article… I got a great perspective about what it was like from a small farmers vantage point and one of them is in the north part of the valley and one of them is in the Del Norte area, so even though they are different in location they have similar plights and it all comes down to how do we maintain the water for everybody. And maybe how do we do ‘fallow,’ where you don’t farm certain portions of the land and you save them so nutrients come back. It’s an old technique, but some people in a drought year believe they need to capture funds that they lost the year before, so they say ‘we’ll just do this this year,’ but then one year turns into four, or five and that’s part of the reason they are having issues with water, especially with the advantage of pivot irrigation systems that came about in the 70s. You can acquire and water more land for higher yields, yet the interesting thing I am learning is that the yields are not as good. So, they may have the quantity, but not the quality. That’s what I got from this one woman in a phone call. She’s been doing the ‘fallows’ and is now getting better yields from the pieces that were held fallow.
TCN: How does what is happening there translate to other areas of the district?
Lopez: We’re not on the lower Arkansas Water Conservancy Districts platform, but the Purgatoire River feeds into John Martin Reservoir and one thing I’ve been learning is because of the Kansas compact, all the water that feeds the Kansas people is directly coming from the Purgatoire. So that way it doesn’t touch the Arkansas River, granted it all flows into the John Martin Reservoir, so how do you decipher which water came from where, but the water that comes off of our river is more highly regulated by the people in Kansas. They come and check with all our ditch companies to make sure they are not taking too much water, or building ponds, because if they fly over and see it they will tell them to break that pond up so the water can flow down. We have similar issues we don’t have as much water as the people in the San Luis Valley, because they have an encompassing valley that all these mountains pour into these aquifers. We just have a river that runs through us that is blocked up by a federal agency. Actually we have two agencies the Department of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers who oversee that, which we were told a long time ago was a one-time expenditure, but low-and-behold the ditch companies still have to pay back. So again, ‘whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.’
TCN: Your family has been very involved in this community both socially and politically. How have they influenced this campaign?
Lopez: Well, my mom and dad always instilled in us to ‘leave it better than you found it.’ Whether camping some place, or if we were hunting somewhere, you leave it better than you found it. Ever since I came home in 2013, I came home because my dad was ill and after he passed away I said, ‘well, if I’m going to be here, I’m going to try and make a difference.’ I have the energy and am resourceful enough to learn and am open-minded, I would like to think. I don’t just take one persons point-of-view as gospel. I will actually go and talk to the person they might have an issue with and say ‘hey, I want to find out your side of the story.’ Otherwise, I don’t feel I am being any benefit to the entire community if I don’t take an open-minded approach. There may be something in my mind that I’m stuck on and I’ll talk to someone else and if I find they make a convincing argument that causes enough cognitive dissonance with me then I will say, ‘you know what, I’ve been going at this the wrong way, maybe I need a different approach and I am willing to do that.
TCN: How do you win this race?
Lopez: I think it comes down to empathy. First of all it’s not about the money. This job doesn’t pay that much. But I’ve learned that you can have a rewarding life without a lot of money, because you were able to help your fellow man. If I can make sure that rural communities have better health care providers where they can go there and get the care they need in all areas of the state, not just Senate District 35, but all rural areas — that’s beneficial for Colorado. If I can make sure our education department gets more funding and we quit taking money from it, so our kids can grow up with better education and we can have people taking care of us that are smarter when we’re older — that’s my contribution to society. If I can go out there and say ‘hey we found new energy technology and implemented it through our local junior colleges and community colleges,’ so that way we have a better planet left later for our future generations — that’s my contribution to society. We’ve got a finite amount of time here. I don’t want to look back and say I squandered it by not participating. I believe in order to participate in something that is productive and tangible we need someone who is strong-willed and stands up for what is right for everybody.